Paris-Roubaix Femmes is at once one of the most selective races on the calendar, as well as being among the most unpredictable.
With 17 sections of uniquely horrible cobblestones over the course of the race’s 145km duration, including the famous five-star sectors Mons-en-Pévèle and the Carrefour de l'Arbre, the race is guaranteed to split to pieces, with only the strongest able to survive.
But who exactly will be the strongest isn’t easy to predict. Having only been held for the first time in 2021, Paris-Roubaix Femmes remains a very young race, and therefore we still haven’t had much of a chance to learn which riders most excel on these roads, especially considering that no other race on the calendar compares to the unique challenges it poses.
The previous two editions have also been markedly different in circumstances: the first, in 2021, was held during the autumn in hazardous wet weather, while last year’s race returned to the usual springtime slot and took place under blue skies and over dry, dusty cobblestones.
Add to this uncertainty the role that luck plays, with crashes and mechanicals always an inevitable feature on these rough roads, picking a winner is no simple task, but here’s who we’re expecting to be the main riders to watch.
If Lotte Kopecky wasn’t already the hot favourite for Paris-Roubaix, then she certainly is in the aftermath of last weekend.
The Belgian has always looked one of the smoothest riders on the cobblestones in the peloton, and her aptitude for the particularly uneven pavé of the Hell of the North was clear at last year’s edition when she finished second behind Elisa Longo Borghini. But her victory at the Tour of Flanders on Sunday (which came after she’d already won Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Nokere Koerse on two of her four previous race days this season), indicates that she’s since improved even more, and that nobody in the peloton right now is at her level. With a powerful SD Worx line-up supporting her, Kopecky is the rider to beat.
Kopecky is the rider to beat (Getty Images)
Elisa Longo Borghini
Having placed third in the inaugural edition and won last year, no rider can claim a better pedigree in the young history of Paris-Roubaix Femmes than Elisa Longo Borghini. She’s quickly mastered the cobblestones, and the relentlessness of the parcours suits her style of aggressive racing.
There have been concerns about the Italian’s form after a Covid infection interrupted her spring, but the way she managed to finish third at the Tour of Flanders despite riding for most of it as a domestique for Trek-Segafredo teammate Shiran van Anrooij suggests she’s nearing peak form again. A title defence is certainly possible.
Marianne Vos has unfinished business at Paris-Roubaix. She was left frustrated in 2021 when, despite looking brilliant on the wet cobbles and dropping everyone in the peloton, she was denied victory by Lizzie Deignan’s early attack; then the morning of her much anticipated return the following season, a Covid positive test prevented her from competing.
Vos is desperate to add Roubaix to her glittering palmarès (Getty Images)
You may think such near misses and bad luck mean Vos is destined to never win Paris-Roubaix, but the 35-year-old has a history of bending fate into her own will. She’s gone under the radar so far this spring, only showing glimpses of her best form after pelvic artery surgery delayed her start to the season, but knowing Vos she’ll raise her game for a race she’s so desperate to win before retiring.
SD Worx might have been untouchable in the classics so far this spring, but Paris-Roubaix has been Trek-Segafredo’s race, with Deignan and Borghini ensuring that the team remain unbeaten here.
Although Borghini will probably be their leader on Sunday, Lucinda Brand also provides another great option. As such an accomplished cyclocross rider, the Dutchwoman is a natural fit for the cobblestones, as was clear last year when she finished third at her Paris-Roubaix debut. That result ignited a desire for more, and Brand has outlined the Hell of the North as her major early season target on the road. Her form this spring might have been underwhelming so far this spring, but her ability on the cobbles make her a top contender nevertheless.
As one of the best performing riders over the cobbles this spring, and as one of the few non-SD Worx to win a classic (Brugge-De Panne), the 22-year-old Georgi must now be considered among the top tier of favourites. That wasn’t the case 12 months ago, when she entered Paris-Roubaix with the painful memories of being battered and bruised the first time around, but by managing to finish ninth on that second attempt she proved herself well acclimated to the cobblestones.
Georgi has made a big step up in the Classics in 2023 (Getty Images)
She’ll once again team up with DSM companion Megan Jastrub, with whom she’s forged such a fruitful partnership this spring, and, with Juliette Labous not riding, will have more freedom to ride for herself.
One of the best performers in the two previous Paris-Roubaix Femmes, Bastianelli was fifth in the inaugural race, and could have bettered that last year had a dangerous move consisting of herself, Brand and Kopecky worked more cohesively together and been successful in making it to the finish. Clearly she’s more comfortable on these cobblestones than most.
Having won Le Samyn, made the podium at Nokere Koerse and both Opening Weekend races, and placed sixth at Gent-Wevelgem, she’s approaching the kind of form that saw her triumph at the Tour of Flanders in 2019, a result that remains the biggest of her career. Aged 35, and set to retire at the end of the season, she’s running out of time to better that, but a Paris-Roubaix victory would certainly be the ultimate cherry on top of her illustrious career.
The third Paris-Roubaix Femmes is notable for the riders who won’t be here. Chief among the absentees will be Annemiek van Vleuten, who hasn’t returned to this race since crashing out in 2021, while the respective stars of Canyon-SRAM and Groupama-FDJ Kasia Niewiadoma and Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig are also set to skip it.
In their place, other riders will have the chance to step up and achieve some personal glory. For Movistar, both Floortje Mackaij (who was sixth here last year) and Arlenis Sierra (10th at the Tour of Flanders at the weekend) will enjoy more seniority than usual, while Canyon-SRAM’s Elisa Chabbey is probably a better fit for this kind of race than Niewiadoma, having finished fourth last year. Grace Brown and, despite her indifferent form so far this spring, should be the kind of rider to excel on this terrain.
Floortje Mackaij will be one of Movistar's leaders in the absence of Van Vleuten (Getty Images)
SD Worx are also set to lack their stars Demi Vollering and Marlen Reusser, but that will at least have the benefit of removing any ambiguity from Kopecky’s status as outright leader, while Christine Majerus (who looked so good on the cobbles in 2021 before an unfortunate crash) should provide great support. The threat of Lorena Wiebes’ sprint will give the team another valuable card, too.
Other fast finishers hoping to stay in contention on the cobblestones include Chiara Consonni, who, in the absence of Silvia Persico, will line-up as UAE Team ADQ’s main rider alongside Bastianelli; Elisa Balsamo for Trek-Segafredo, though she’s endured a difficult time at Paris-Roubaix to date, and was even disqualified last year for a sticky bottle; and Charlotte Kool, who provides DSM another option, but has also yet to show herself capable of overcoming the rough cobbles
Paris-Roubaix Femmes 2023 prediction
There’s no doubt that Lotte Kopecky is the overwhelming favourite, but might that actually curtail her chances of winning? Stress plays such a significant role in a race as chaotic as Paris-Roubaix, and with so much pressure to win, and every other rider paying her close attention, it’s easy to imagine things not going to plan.
So instead, we’re backing Marianne Vos to add the race she so dearly wants on her palmarès. She has a habit of raising her game for major occasions, and in the same way she triumphed in the inaugural La Course and Women’s Tour in 2014, and had so much success at the inaugural Women’s Tour de France last year, victory at Paris-Roubaix does seem written in the stars.
Cover image by James Startt